By Stuart Grant with photography Oliver Hirtenfelder

Volvo P1800S (17)

Since its inception in 1927, Volvo has been regarded as a leader in reliability and a forerunner in development safety, but not many would include the Swedish firm on any list of motoring style gurus. Although recognised as rugged, the Volvo aesthetics tend toward the boring – but the P1800 broke the square mould for a while.

Of course stereotypes aren’t always true, as the curved lines of the PV444, PV544 and 122S Amazon show. One can even argue that the dynamics were anything but dreary if you note how successful these models were on track with the likes of Arnold Chatz steering them. Despite this, Volvo felt the need to shake off its sober image with a sports car and boost sales in the lucrative American market. So serious was the idea that Volvo founder Assar Gabrielsson headed to the States during the early ʼ50s to investigate high-tech fibreglass body structure and the much-praised Chevrolet Corvette.

Volvo P1800S (13)

A deal was done with Californian-based Glasspar to fit fibreglass sports car bodies to the PV444 in time to debut at the 1955 Brussels Motor Show. Looking rather odd, sales of the car badged ‘Sport’ weren’t as expected and only 67 were made and sold before execs cut the model from the line-up in 1957.

Undeterred, and seeing the explosion of the sports car market in America, Volvo kept the idea of a sporty Volvo. Eventually the original PV444 designer Helmer Petterson convinced the board to take another dabble. Petterson’s key factor was that the car would succeed if styled in Italy. Volvo’s newly appointed boss Gunnar Engellau bit at the idea with Italian studio Ghia and its subsidiary, Frua cracking the nod for clothing it.

Released at the 1960 New York and Brussels motor shows the result was a thing of beauty, featuring a Ferrari-esque grille, plenty of curved panels, a low-drag roof line and some noticeable but not in-your-face tail fins. Interestingly, fibreglass technology was ditched in favour of good old-fashioned steel. Inside the cabin the sporting theme continued with some orthopaedically designed bucket seats and a plethora of gauges, and although a back seat was fitted, its minute dimensions meant the car was seen and marketed as a two-seater.

Volvo P1800S (14)

While the design house was Italian-based and the car smacked of Italian GT charm, the final appearance can be tracked down to a Swede, Pelle Petterson. Pelle was the son of Helmer Petterson and at the time worked at Frua. Out of a handful of proposals his was chosen and put into production, but Volvo saw the benefit in selling the model as an Italian design so only came clean with an acknowledgement in 2009. Whatever the story, with a sleek design, reasonable performance, large boot, luggage straps and class-leading ventilation/heating, the P1800 cemented its place as a brilliant tourer.

It wasn’t the fastest vehicle in town but had enough oomph not to embarrass, with power coming from the Amazon-derived 1.8-litre four-cylinder engine fed by twin-SU inch and three-quarter carburettors and a slightly warmer camshaft. In fact, in a wise move, Volvo dug all major mechanicals from the Amazon parts bin, which meant reliability and cost cutting. That meant the 100 horsepower was transferred to the rear wheels via four-speed manual gearbox and overdrive, the rubber was kept in contact with a coil sprung solid rear axle and coil-sprung front end, while stopping abilities came thanks to discs up front and drums at the rear.

Volvo P1800S (11)

With the American market in mind, Italian styling and Swedish sturdiness at the fore, the P1800 was a global car. Even more so when you see that production was initially undertaken at the Jensen Amazon assembly. Karmann was the first choice, but Volkswagen baulked at the idea, leaving not much choice other than Jensen. By late 1964, production moved home to Sweden. Some say this was because Volvo expanded its facilities while others cite the poor quality control and finish at Jensen as the reason. Whatever the situation, Volvo rebadged the P1800 as 1800S (‘S’ supposedly symbolising Sweden), gave it another 8 horses and a few minor cosmetic alterations. 1966 saw a few tweaks to the engine resulting in 115bhp and a top speed of 175km/h. A 2-litre engine found its way in from 1967 but the name remained P1800S.

By 1970, Volvo started feeling market and technological pressure from the rivals, resulting in the addition of a Bosch D-Jetronic fuel injection (badged 1800E) model that churned out 130bhp and was claimed to be good for 190km/h without upsetting the fuel consumption. In addition, the ‘E’ received discs on all corners.

While the 544 and 122S models made inroads into the market with sporting achievements, the P1800 can thank the television divine intervention for some good PR, as Simon Templar (Roger Moore) chased around the roads in the cold-war mystery spy thriller The Saint. Volvo supplied four P1800s for use in the TV series for the dapper British ladies’ man, Templar. And of course, the number plate ‘TS-1’ alluded to ‘Templar Saint 1’.

Volvo P1800S (12)

The first was a Jensen-built 1962 P1800 and used in 26 episodes before being replaced by a ’64 1800S. Unlike modern movies where the cars are disposable, the ’62 car was kept in use with the roof cut off to allow for better interior shots. The ’64 1800S remained in use for 59 shows before being replaced in ’67 by a car sporting the latest facelift, Minilite wheels, two-spoke wood-rim steering wheel and some spotlights. Unfortunately, this car was crashed heavily soon after delivery, so the production house cobbled the new bits into the old ’64 car to keep it looking up to date. Later that year Volvo supplied two more cars with one being used for shooting until the show’s end in 1969 and the other as Moore’s personal car. In total TV time, The Saint Volvos featured more than any of the James Bond Aston Martins – Roger Moore stamped his name in the history books as James Bond from 1973 to 1985.

By 1972 the styling had dated somewhat, and Volvo once again turned to Frua. Frua’s response was to cut the rear roof line and add an all-glass shooting-brake or station wagon-type backend. This was adjudged to be too futuristic so in-house designer Jan Wilsgaard’s more toned-down station wagon got the go-ahead in the form of the 1800ES. ES power was down to 125bhp (the addition of a thicker head gasket reduced compression) but surprisingly the real-life performance improved. The ES also saw the introduction of a three-speed automatic option. Just under 40 000 P1800, 1800S and 1800E units were manufactured while at only 8 077, the 1800ES is a relatively rare beast.

Volvo P1800S (18)

Production wound up in 1973, with the 1800 looking a little long in the tooth and battling to compete with the likes of Jaguar’s E-Type in the value for money and performance department. Volvo’s design house seemingly lost its French Curves at the same time and reverted back to the straight edge. But thankfully recent attempts have shown a nod toward the past – one look at the back of the C30 hatch and memories of the 1800ES overwhelm. Here’s hoping the trend of looking back continues and the P1800 isn’t a one-hit wonder.

Volvo P1800S (2)
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